Rattlesnake Master

Rattlesnake master flowers bloom in the summer and can last up to two months. They are highly attractive to a wide variety of insects including over 30 species of bees. Photo credit: Crazytwoknobs, cc-by 3.0

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is an unusual wildflower native to open areas in much of the central and eastern U.S. In the wild, it is an indicator of high-quality remnant prairie or barrens. It is also commonly included in prairie restoration or large pollinator plantings. In recent years, it has increased in popularity as a garden plant as well.

One of the striking components of rattlesnake master is its foliage. It has an almost greyish green color and the individual leaves are reminiscent of yucca leaves including the little white “hairs” or soft prickles along the edges. In fact, the scientific name for rattlesnake master basically means prickly plant with yucca-like leaves. In a garden setting, the foliage provides visual interest even when the plant isn’t blooming.

Rattlesnake master is a summer-blooming plant that can be in bloom for a month or two. In Kentucky, that typically translates to July and August, although they may start blooming as early as late-June. The blooms are tight, ball-like clusters of white flowers. The flowers are extremely attractive to a wide variety of insect visitors. One study counted over 180 different species visiting rattlesnake master flowers including a wide variety of bees, wasps, flies, butterflies (including monarchs), beetles, and true bugs. Many of the wasps that visit rattlesnake master are predators that gather other insects to feed their young, including some insects that are considered pest species.

Most of the insect visitors to rattlesnake master are coming to drink the abundant nectar which has been described as having a honey-like smell. Only a few species of bees, mostly bumble bees, actively gather nectar from the flowers. In addition to being a valuable source of nectar, rattlesnake master is also the only host plant for the caterpillars of two relatively rare species of moths. After the flowers stop blooming, finches and other songbirds may move in to eat the seeds. Deer, rabbits, and other mammalian herbivores mostly avoid eating rattlesnake master leaves, which makes it a good option for pollinator gardens in areas where there is heavy deer pressure.

Rattlesnake master has unique foliage for a member of the carrot family. The leaves are long and narrow with stiff hairs or soft prickles along the edges. They are reminiscent of yucca leaves – a fact that is reflected in the scientific name. Photo credit: Frank Mayfield, cc-by-sa 2.0 

Just looking at the plant, most people would never guess that rattlesnake master is in the carrot family. However, like other members of the carrot family, rattlesnake master has a large taproot. The taproot helps the plant survive droughts, but also makes it hard to transplant so it is best not to try and move established plants.

In addition to its ecological value, rattlesnake master also has a long history of use by humans. Woven moccasins made from rattlesnake master have been found in Mammoth Cave and date back to prehistoric activities in the cave 2,000 – 4,000 years ago. Other prehistoric woven items such as bags, cords, and additional moccasins made from rattlesnake master fibers have been found in other caves throughout the southeast as well and date to the same general time period. The common name, “rattlesnake master,” refers to the fact that this plant was once used as a treatment for snakebites.

Today, rattlesnake master is used primarily for restoration and gardening purposes. If you want a unique plant that is attractive to a wide variety of pollinators, provides visual interest even when it isn’t in bloom, and is fairly deer resistant, then rattlesnake master is a species that you might want to consider. It grows well in a range of soil moistures, just don’t plant it in extremely dry or extremely wet soils. It prefers full sun, but can take a little shade. It is also best grown in locations where it has some competition from other surrounding plants – otherwise it might grow too tall and fall over.

This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

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